Facing a massive surge of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, states have begun pleading with the federal government to help prop up their beleaguered hospitals, according to multiple individuals familiar with the matter.
On a Monday call between the White House’s coronavirus task force and the nation’s governors, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, Peter Gaynor, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he and the agency’s administrators throughout the U.S. have been in contact with state leaders in recent weeks about how to handle the staffing shortages in hospitals and other health care facilities.
Separate from the call, one other senior health official working on the government’s COVID-19 response said, outreach to the agency about medical staffing needs has ramped up in the last 10 days and that FEMA is working with local jurisdictions to ensure their hospitals have tried to solve staffing issues first before making a formal request for assistance.
Gaynor said FEMA officials were in “near constant contact” with states in order to assess their needs for the coming weeks and months.
“This has been a challenge across the country. We are going to move into a little bit more of a demanding scenario as we move through the fall and the winter,” Gaynor said.
The call with the nation’s governors comes as states across the country struggle to maintain a third wave of the coronavirus and suggest that a strain on resources could soon exacerbate an already dire situation.
In the last week alone, there have been more than 1 million COVID-19 cases reported and on average more that 1,000 deaths per day. Most of the states in the heartland and throughout the Midwest have been categorized as “hot spots” and are experiencing soaring hospitalization numbers which have overcrowded rural and regional health care facilities and resulted in massive staffing shortages.
In response, state officials are looking for lifelines anywhere they exist. In Minnesota, which already relies on federal nurses to help in its coronavirus response, officials requested additional help from FEMA earlier this month, with Gov. Tim Walz asking Gaynor for 10 medical professionals to help handle his state’s recent COVID-19 outbreak.
“Right now, Minnesota’s case counts are on the rise, which means the need for staffing support will continue to increase. This is becoming particularly problematic in rural areas that require longer travel in order to provide support,” Walz said. “We are observing that the number of staffing positions individual facilities need seems to be increasing.”
More states are likely to follow Minnesota’s lead, the senior health official said, adding that the agency was closely tracking communities with increasing hospitalization rates, particularly those in rural areas where access to hospitals with intensive care units is limited.
In states such as North Dakota and Wisconsin, doctors and nurses who have contracted COVID-19 but who are asymptomatic, are still treating patients because there are not enough health care professionals to care for the constant influx of people.
Vice President Mike Pence, who chaired the call with governors on Monday, acknowledged the rising cases in the country, saying the federal government would do everything it can to help communities in need, particularly hospitals. He said the federal government has had the capacity since July to access hospitals’ internal COVID-19 data, allowing it to more easily assess the needs of individual facilities on a case-by-case basis.
“What we want to do is stay in front of it and where you see those challenges beginning to emerge, we will be right there,” Pence said.
Pence also promised governors that the federal government would help states with personal protective equipment and other essential medicines during the next few months before a viable vaccine becomes available to the American public. The vice president said the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had spent the last several months rebuilding the strategic national stockpile.
“I want to assure you at the outset that America has never been more prepared to combat this virus. We’ve never been in a better position to make sure that hospitals and health care providers in your state have the PPE, have the equipment, and have access to the medicines,” Pence said.
But officials at HHS say that under the current structure, the federal government is not to be viewed as a provider for states in need but as a backstop for states once they firmly exhaust all other avenues for their needs.
“We are working closely and coordinating with individual public health authorities to first identify any availability in the commercial market and to assist them with accessing those supplies first,” a spokesperson for the department said. “If a product is scarce, HHS may then deploy the [stockpile] to fill that gap on a temporary basis until a commercial product is available.”